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Is Apple Entering An Age Of Empire?

A quarter century ago, Apple touted itself as the alternative to computer hegemony. But its new iPad grows works only with applications approved by and sold through Apple. Host Guy Raz talks to Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo about whether Apple is stifling innovation by building the type of empire it once warned against.

A quarter century ago, Apple touted itself as the alternative to computer hegemony. But its new iPad grows works only with applications approved by and sold through Apple. Host Guy Raz talks to Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo about whether Apple is stifling innovation by building the type of empire it once warned against.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Back when personal computers were taking off in the mid-1980s, Apple Computer aired a now-famous ad during the Super Bowl. It was a play of George Orwell's "1984," and in it, the world is gray. From a giant computer screen, a Big Brother-type person spews out propaganda. That is, until a lone woman runs towards the screen and smashes it with a hammer.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."

RAZ: The message was clear: Apple was providing a choice to consumers. But in today's tech circles, there's a growing discussion over whether Apple has now become the man that it warned against so long ago.

In a few weeks, Apple will release the iPad - it's a portable touch-screen computer similar to the iPhone or the iPod Touch. And like those products, it will only run on Apple's operating system and only with applications approved by Apple sold only through Apple's online application store.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for Slate. And he's with me from KALW in San Francisco. Welcome.

Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Technology Columnist, Slate.com): Hi. Good to be here.

RAZ: Now, first of all, describe how the Apple application store works.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. So, for all computer systems, we need to get software to make our computers do more things. For PCs, we're used to getting, you know, just buying software from any store or going to the Web and downloading stuff. For the iPhone and the iPod Touch and soon the iPad, what you have to do is go to the App Store that it's built into the device. And there's a little button, you click it, you choose whatever kind of app you want and it downloads instantly and it's on your phone or your iPod Touch and it runs instantly. It's very convenient.

RAZ: And Apple owns this store, and so they get a cut of everything sold.

Mr. MANJOO: Yes. They get 30 percent. So, if independent developer creates a program, they sell it for $1, the developer gets 70 cents; Apple gets 30 cents.

RAZ: Now, this week, a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation got a hold of and then published an Apple corporate document, which the company had kept secret. And it's basically a contract that the developers have to sign before they can even create applications for the iPhone and the iPad. What did the document reveal?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. First of all, it's pretty remarkable that it's been secret all this time. And one of the reasons it's secret is because there are 100,000 developers who are creating programs for the iPhone but they all have to sign this document, and one of the provisions on this document says that they can't publicly speak about it.

RAZ: So, what are some of the restrictions?

Mr. MANJOO: One of the things that you can't that Apple has the right to do is to remove any app from the store at any time for any reason that it determines. It doesn't even have to state a reason. Actually, we've seen this happened many times since the App Store opened for various reasons, some of which seemed reasonable and many of which seemed completely arbitrary.

RAZ: Why does Apple make these products so restrictive?

Mr. MANJOO: Apple wants to make sure that everything on the iPhone and the iPad is easy to use and also that it should sort of live up in a certain sense to the Apple brand.

RAZ: Well, what are the tech community saying in terms of the implications of all this? I mean, given that Apple is the gatekeeper, what does this mean for consumers, especially in the future?

Mr. MANJOO: So, it sets up, as I see it, a dangerous precedent because we're used to this sense in computing in the computer industry that things are becoming freer all the time. But there's this fear now that Apple and devices like the iPad might come to restrict computing again.

In a general sense, it kind of places limits on what consumers can do and what developers can do. And, you know, people in the computer industry see this is dangerous for innovation and kind of dangerous in general for the industry.

RAZ: That's Farhad Manjoo. He's a technology columnist for Slate.com.

Farhad, thanks so much for joining me.

Mr. MANJOO: Great. Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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